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Q: What is Terroir?

by David on April 25, 2008

Question from Hank: What do they mean when they talk about “terroir”?

Reply: Hi, Hank! Thanks for writing – I think. ;-) This is a tough question, because there’s no one answer, so better get yourself a glass of wine… It’s a French term, with no direct English translation and, if you look it up online, you’ll notice that no one agrees on what it encompasses. But, here goes:

I think Jamie Goode, at Wine Anorak, gets the spirit of the thing very nicely. He says “… it can probably best be summed-up as the possession by a wine of a sense of place, or ‘somewhereness’. That is, a wine from a particular patch of ground expresses characteristics related to the physical environment in which the grapes are grown.”

There are lots of ways to look at it – on a macro level, you could say that terroir is the reason that Cabernet Sauvignon from the Medoc doesn’t taste the same as Cabernet from Napa Valley. The Burgundians tend to go by the meter when it comes to differences in terroir – I’d call that a micro-approach. On our 9-acre site here at the winery we see differences from the Cabernet that’s harvested in front of the winery and the Cab that grows behind it, several yards away – also micro – and we’d have to attribute that to differences in the soil. So, as Jamie would say, we’re experiencing “…site-specific differences in wines that are caused by factors such as soil types, drainage, local microclimate and sun exposure – some sort of link to geography…”

Uber-purists say that terroir has only to do with the soil. That’s a pretty small group. Lots of people think terroir takes in a combination of soil, climate, topography and exposure. And a few go on to include the intervention of man – the vineyard manager’s choice of rootstock or decision to pull leaves or thin the crop.

We know that soil can’t directly flavor the grapes. If it could, as Dr. Mark Matthews of UC Davis says in a quote to the New York Times, they’d “…taste like dirt. Any minerals from the solid rock that vine roots do absorb have to be dissolved first in the soil moisture. Most of them are essential nutrients, and they mainly affect how well the plant as a whole grows.”

You can see that all of this has nothing to do with winemaking. And that’s interesting because some of our most technically-astute enologists believe that we mistakenly identify sulfur compounds, which may be the result of fermentations with nutrient deficiencies, as “terroir” flavors or mineral characteristics. Hmmm…

The Europeans are very terroir oriented, in fact it’s the basis for the way their wines are classified. In most cases, instead of naming the variety that makes the wine, it’s named for the place it comes from and there are local regulations as to which varieties may be grown for commercial purposes, presumably because they’ve done well there historically. Could other varieties do well in the region? Of course they could, but that’s the way it works.

And, of course, there are those who think the concept of terroir is a bunch of marketing hooey because the term is so frequently abused as a marketing enticement.

So, it’s a complicated subject and I’m afraid I’m guilty of a two-glass reply, ;-) but I hope it’s a start. Cheers! Nancy

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